Monday, 15 December 2014


Waterstones chief executive James Daunt
James Daunt, the Chief Executive of Waterstones,

I read an article in this Sunday’s, Observer, entitled

Whisper it quietly, the book is back … and here’s the man leading the revival

The man in question is James Daunt, the Chief Executive of Waterstones, the main High Street, quality bookshop chain we have in Britain. The article stated,

“The news that, for the first time in a long time, Waterstones is beginning to show signs of modest growth (new shops; new optimism; new markets) is symbolic of a sea-change in the world of books. Whisper it discreetly, but the book is showing signs of making a modest comeback, with British bookselling exhibiting the symptoms of an unfamiliar, fragile optimism.
During the first decade of the new century, this sector cornered the market in gloomy predictions that the end of the world was nigh. The digital revolution, plus Amazon, plus the credit crunch, seemed to add up to a literary apocalypse. There were moments, some CEOs in book publishing now concede, when they could hardly see a commercial way forward. A mood of panic quickly spread, with many dire predictions.
In Britain, hardbacks were said to be on the rocks, libraries doomed, the ebook all conquering, with the Visigoths of online selling storming through the high street. Among writers, with the tumbleweed blowing down Grub Street, the garret loomed.”

Lets imagine a certain scenario leading up to Christmas. I am sitting at home. I have my i-pad on my lap, lounging comfortably on a sofa. I look up AMAZON in my GOOGLE search box. I click on the heading, books. Recently  I read a review of a book by Andy Miller entitled, A Year of Reading Dangerously. The title sounded interesting. I wondered what wild things could have been happening in Andy’s reading adventures this year. Looking at the book on-line, without moving so  much as an arm, I  moved a finger or two, gliding my hand over the virtual keyboard on the screen in front of me and typed an enquiry that revealed there was a link to a similar book written by Henry Miller. The surnames are a coincidence by the way. I thought then there must be some depth, some profundity in this apparently flippant Christmas stocking filler. A couple of clicks later I accessed my AMAZON account and paid for an e-book version of the above tomb and there it appeared in my i- book app.

I clicked on it and perused the introduction. I had a look at the chapter headings and then clicked it off to read further at a later date, bookmarking the page I had got to.
I then proceeded to click on my TESCOS account, reviewed my last food shopping list, adjusted a couple of items, added McVities Chocolate Biscuits and sent my order in. A few more deft movements of my fingers only, required.

In my head, I must admit, and this must be a throwback to Neanderthal times, when I would have actually had to drive my car, park it and walk to a book shop in Wimbledon, or drive a mile to my local TESCOS and walk the aisles pushing a trolley, I imagined the people who were about to do the work for me, in my place. I still have an inbuilt memory of actual human contact and interactions. A fault perhaps in my programming. I recall the inconvenience of other people around me, waiting in queues,  using my VISA card and having to press the digits on the card machine to enter my code and then all the trouble of carrying and bringing my purchases home!!! My goodness, the time wasted.

So this brings me back to the above article in the Observer. How can book shops be making a comeback, even a tentative come back? What on earth is going on? AMAZON, like some far off alien force has zapped all actual shops. They bring everything to my door. E- Shopping with TESCOS has eliminated the need to walk around the shopping aisles making that tedious effort to lift an arm, flex the fingers of  a hand,grip an item and then place it in a trolley. There was the matter of having to make the effort of using my legs too, of course!!! And meeting real flesh and blood people!!??

So what is it about holding a book in your hands and having to physically turn the pages? A book, has weight. It is a solid object. You can feel its texture. You can dog ear the pages. In a whisper, you can scribble notes in its margins. If you want to, you could deface it . Various autocratic and draconian regimes have even done that. Burning piles of them have been known. A real solid paper and card book, with real print and real pictures, some are works of art in themselves, is something you can touch, smell, taste, if those are your wants, and experience its presence through all your senses. You can actually hear it too. It makes quiet sounds when you turn the pages or loud sounds if you drop it from a height and it causes screams, as it flutters through the air, when , in a fit of anger, you might want throw it at someone. It is something, even apart from its cerebral content, that we can have a relationship with.

What might be happening then, with Waterstones as an example? Is the world  now readjusting to a more human scale? Is internet shopping being rebalanced so we can become human again?Are people now wanting to get back some elements of a real, physical world of shopping? And when the dust has settled I wonder in which favour the balance might be weighted?

Sane human beings need contact with people  and all manner of things including solid paper books through the use of our senses. It is how we make relationships. If a lot of those points of contact are removed and we are only left with the cerebral bit, the thought process bit and everything else is imagined in our heads, or, perish the thought, a generation or two down the line, they might not even have the memory of a full sensory life, then we are doomed as a human race. We cannot be human.

Long live experiences which bring us into real contact with people and real contact with things, including books. Long live Waterstones and all the independent book shops all over the country. I hope you are surviving and not only surviving but are a real valued part of your community.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

A story about Charles Dickens for Christmas!!!!!

A news article, published today on the BBC website, describes how Charles Dicken’s lobbied for his own personal letter box to be installed in the brick wall that separated his garden and house at Gads Hill, from the main road.

Gads Hill Place at Higham near Rochester.

In the 19th Century, when the postal service was in its infancy, Charles Dickens lobbied for his own personal letterbox, writes Kathryn Westcott.
It's Christmas 1869 and Charles Dickens, prolific letter writer, is hurriedly finishing off a correspondence. "The postman is waiting at the gate to tramp through the snow to Rochester and is unlawfully drinking a glass of gin while I write this," Dickens reveals to his friend Charles Kent.
The postman was a familiar sight at Dickens's Georgian home, Gad's Hill Place in Higham, Kent. A postbox, installed by the postal service at the author's request, was one of the earliest wall-boxes to be introduced in Britain, following the introduction of the pillar box across the nation by fellow writer Anthony Trollope in 1852.
Dickens had personally lobbied for that postbox in 1859. Perhaps acting on a tip-off by friend and writer Edmund Yates, who worked in the Postmaster General's office, he replies to a correspondence from Yates stating:
"I think that no one seeing the place can well doubt that my house at Gad's Hill is the place for the letter-box. The wall is accessible by all sorts and conditions of men, on the bold high road, and the house altogether is the great landmark of the whole neighbourhood. Captain Goldsmith's house is up a lane considerably off the high road; but he has a garden wall abutting on the road itself..."

Rochester Cathedral

In August of 2009 my friend ,Clive, and I drove down from London to Rochester for the day. We visited many of the Dickens sites, such as Rochester Cathedral, where Edwin Drood, Dicken’s final and unfinished novel plays out its dark and mysterious plot. We stood outside of  Satis House at the end of the High Street which Dickens used in Great Expectations as the home of Miss Haversham. We lingered outside the old town hall, now Rochester Museum, where Joe Gargery took Pip to be indentured.

Satis House.

 We found the Swiss Chalet situated behind buildings off the High Street, now removed from Gads Hill. It was a present from a friend, Dickens had it constructed in his garden.  It was where he escaped to write in privacy. We photographed The Royal Victoria and Bull Hotel where, not only Dickens and his friends sometimes stayed, but where the illustrious Mr Pickwick resided.Rochester and, The Bull, mark the start of Pickwicks travels.

The Bull
Without a doubt Clive and I made our way out of Rochester across the bridge over The Medway and up to the top of Gads Hill to visit Gads Hill Place, Dickens final residence and where he died.
Gads Hill Place is an imposing, large Victorian house set back from the main road within ample grounds. Shrubs and trees shade it. A crescent drive enters, from the road at one side, arcs round to the front door of the house and then curves round to the other side of the property to re-enter the main road again. A brick wall fronts the property separating it from the pavement and main road.

The tunnel to the Swiss Chalet.
There are two unique features to Gads Hill Place and gardens that are observable from outside. The most obviously noticeable are the steep sloping steps that lead from the front of the house down into the ground to a wide, high arched tunnel. The floor of the tunnel is cobbled. It leads under the road to where a small plot of land is grassed over, surrounded by shrubs and trees, with a bench to sit on. On this piece of land Dickens had his Swiss Chalet initially erected. When you study the tunnel and its entrance and exit you can imagine Dickens briskly entering the tunnel and emerging the other side to climb up the opposite set of steep steps to his Swiss Chalet.  I wonder how much the process of using the tunnel created a sense of entering another world?

The Swiss Chalet Dickens used for writing. It was here that he was writing Edwin Drood before he died.
The other feature is something you might miss. It is a dull  metal oblong plate, about thirty inches in height and about ten inches wide fixed into the brick wall fronting the road. This piece of metal is covered in flaking red paint and has patches of rust covering it. On it is embossed the words, LETTER BOX."

Dickens letter box at Gads Hill Place.

Underneath that title is a royal crown with the capital letters V and R situated either side.
Under the crown are the words ,"cleared  at," Two  holes made below this statement show where a metal holder was positioned to take the collection time sign.This is the letter box Dickens lobbied to have installed at Gads Hill.